March 06, 2012; Port St Lucie, FL, USA; St. Louis Cardinals left fielder Matt Holliday (7) at the plate in the first inning of a spring training game.
Matt Holliday had the highest OPS+ of his career last season, in the second year of his $120 million contract with the St. Louis Cardinals—153—and it came in an appropriate way: He kept having his usual season while the offensive context tumbled around him.
It's the second time, now, that he's pulled this trick; the first came in 2009, when everyone in baseball seemed equally leery of his ability to cope outside Coors Field. The year before he'd had his least impressive season in three years, hitting 25 home runs—his fewest to date as a full-time player—and doing it at Coors Field, where a .947 OPS, even then, was only worth an OPS+ of 138.
As it turned out, despite a weak half-season in Oakland there was no reason for concern—at sea level, he continued to hit .300, give or take, with 25 home runs and 40 doubles, give or take. In 2009, that was worth almost exactly what it was in Colorado the year before; in 2010 it was worth even more, and in 2011 it was worth even more than that. As offense declines league-wide, he puts up the same numbers; we'll know he's having a career year when the NL's average OPS falls below .650.
Now he's 32—two seasons of surplus down and five to go—and context keeps changing around him. His free-agency nemesis, Jason Bay, has cratered. Jayson Werth was worth $126 million, then Carl Crawford was crawford $142 million, and now Prince Fielder is fielder $214 million.
Baseball has conspired to make Matt Holliday look more valuable, season after season. What kind of problems can we expect it to react to over the next five years?
1. Major League Baseball announces reduction of schedule to 140 games. Holliday played fewer games in 2011— than he had since 2005. If he misses seven more with appendicitis in 2012 we (and the medical world) will have bigger questions than his durability on our minds, but the leg problems in June and the hand problems in September are a reminder that losing time to injury becomes increasingly inevitable on the other side of 30.
Over his first year-and-a-half with the Cardinals his durability was a significant asset, so you can look at this mostly-full or kind-of-empty: He's been very durable to this point, so he's got a long way to fall, but his durability was also an asset to this point, an asset that is now probably in decline.
The magnitude of that decline is anybody's guess. Clay Davenport's guess, for what it's worth, is pretty severe:
Year Tm Lge Age PA AB R H DB TP HR RBI BB SO SB CS BAvg OBP SLG 2012 STL NL 32 582 510 73 146 24 1 22 82 65 97 6 3 .286 .375 .467 2013 STL NL 33 576 507 71 145 26 2 21 80 62 92 5 3 .286 .372 .469 2014 STL NL 34 512 451 62 128 21 1 18 69 55 82 3 2 .284 .369 .455 2015 STL NL 35 454 399 53 112 19 1 15 59 50 75 2 2 .281 .368 .446 2016 STL NL 36 423 373 48 103 18 1 14 55 46 69 2 2 .276 .362 .442
That's two seasons well above last year's mark but well below 2009 and 2010, before a deeper fall. Of course the value of any projection flung five years into the future is limited, but one value I've always found from projections, even bad ones—and I don't think Davenport's are bad ones—is that they make it easier to visualize things than they might otherwise be. That's what it might look like if Matt Holliday begins losing more time each year to injury, and Matt Holliday might lose more time each far to injury.
2. Extra-base hits drop, league-wide.
Matt Holliday's never been a power hitter, and his isolated power numbers have gone up each of the last two years—last year's mark, .229, is his highest since his 2006-7 stint in the 30-home-run, .260-ISO range—but for all that, projection systems predict a decline next year.
Much of that decline in slugging percentage you see in the Davenport projections isn't coming from his slowly declining home run totals—his HR% falls from five percent in 2011 and hovers around four for the rest of the contract—but a one-time fall in doubles and triples, which fall to five percent of his at-bats after sitting at eight percent for most of his career, 2011 included.
ZiPS predicts a smaller decline—one that's basically in keeping with lower numbers overall—which makes more sense to me. But Holliday's a difficult player to evaluate subjectively; his swing, that vampire-decapitating axe-swipe that produces line drives and line-drive-shaped home runs and looks like it should be tied to Adam Dunn's strikeout rate, doesn't lend itself to my usual ideas about aging players, even though a guy like Vladimir Guerrero suggests that even baseball freaks tend to look exactly like themselves as they age, only less so.
3. Contracts for impact players continue to revolve around them outplaying their salary over their first few years and underperforming it their last few.
I don't know what Matt Holliday will look like in 2016, but I know that the best thing about his contract, at that point, will almost certainly be that the Cardinals paid him $16 million in 2010 and 2011. I expect him to do it again in 2012, and it'd be nice if he did it in 2013 and 2014, but he's already done the thing for which the Cardinals will be paying him $17 million in 2016.
The going rate for that in Detroit is $24 million in 2020; in Boston it's $21 million in 2017. The Cardinals have gotten a discount on the value Holliday's providing already; they'll be getting a discount on the value he doesn't provide in 2016. It was a good deal.